The High Weald has many isolated farmsteads, hamlets and dwellings dotted across the countryside.
The ancient woodland pig pastures of the High Weald – used by farmers from the Downs and coastal plains – were known as dens. These can still be identified and are the key to understanding how the High Weald first became colonized by human settlers – and why it has such a dispersed pattern of settlement today.
As dens were mostly used during the late summer and early autumn, the farmers would have built temporary shelters in which to keep warm while watching their pigs. Over time, the dens became more permanent places of settlement. From then, the first pioneer High Weald farmers began slowly clearing the surrounding woods for animal pastures.
Settlement is a key component of the High Weald’s natural beauty. Policy objectives for settlement are set out in the High Weald AONB Management Plan, pages 30-35.
Temporary becomes permanent
Eventually, the dens became settlements in their own right – either as individual farms or as hamlets – and the isolated, scattered nature of the original dens developed into a pattern of individual farmsteads dotted across the countryside.
The farmsteads were characterised by a relatively large farmhouse, a large barn and a range of smaller barns , granaries and stock and later oasthouses (used for drying hops) – holding memories of agricultural times and traditions long passed.
What’s in a name?
The survival of ancient dens into modern hamlets and villages is recognisable in the place names – many villages, farms, fields and woodland have names ending in ‘-den’.
Most dens have remained small, but a few have expanded to become larger settlements. Tenterden, for example, means “The den of the men of Thanet”.
This pattern of settlement is very different to Central England, which was settled and communally farmed by large village communities, using shared open-field systems.
Villages developed relatively late in the High Weald, again in contrast to much of England: most date from medieval times as centres for trade, not agriculture. Many sprang up around trading points on the high, dry ridge top routes.
Building materials and styles
The traditional building materials and styles of the High Weald are an essential part of the landscape’s distinctive character. The building materials have come, in fact, from that very landscape – so it is hardly surprising that they blend in so well.
Links with the area’s wooded past are evident in the number of timber-framed and weather-boarded buildings, whilst the widespread use of sandstone, bricks and tiles is testimony to the High Weald’s underlying geology of sandstone and clay.
The building materials have led to a particularly rich architectural heritage of distinctive farm buildings – for example hipped and half hipped barns.